Why is Revelation Scary? (It shouldn’t be for believers!)
There are a ton of misconceptions, misinterpretations, and misreadings of Revelation that are extremely popular, which makes it even more difficult for believers to understand what the book means and why it is important. It is the final book of the Bible, the last book written, and in some senses one of the most important books in shaping Christian theology and history, so why are we so afraid to read it?
Revelation is the only true and full apocalypse in scripture. Apocalypse comes from a Greek word meaning “unveiling” or “revealing” which is where we get our English word “Revelation.” Despite the popular rendering there is no “s” at the end of Revelation, because it is meant to be read as a single uncovering or vision of the truth of Jesus Christ and the ultimate judgment and redemption of humanity on earth.
Why is it so different than other New Testament books?
Part of the fear comes from Revelation’s unique content in the New Testament. For a modern reader who has navigated through the straightforward stories in the Gospels, the careful theological explanations of Paul, and the memorable words of encouragement from the other letters of the New Testament, arriving at revelation is confusing. Where did all this stuff about beasts, judgments, and visions come from? We were just reading about being good teaching and being encouraged!
Is it symbolic?
Another reason Revelation scares people is because its contents are largely symbolic visions. The visions are explained in the scriptures themselves in many cases, but in many cases they are mysterious. We like clarity, not mystery! But the ancient Jewish and Gentile audiences hearing or reading this Revelation didn’t have the same issue with mystery. We do not have to read far into the prophetic books of the Old Testament to see Revelation is part of a tradition of visions and mystery that is very much in line with the rest of the Biblical prophets. In fact, Revelation directly draws much of its imagery from Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and others. The interpretation of some parts of Revelation in its context is still debated just as the interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies were debated in the New Testament, Jewish tradition, and even today.
Is it about the end of the world?
But the last reason Revelation is so scary to most people is probably the most widespread: its subject. But even that is misunderstood. Most people think about Revelation as the book about the end of the world. The ultimate judgment of God. The pictures of heaven and hell. Some of those things can be found in Revelation. But the pictures we have seen made popular of heaven with winged angels, clouds, and an old white man with a long beard are not Biblical. The images of hell with fire, pitchforks, and red demons dancing around are not Biblical. Much of that imagery comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy (more commonly known because of Dante’s Inferno), which wasn’t written until hundreds of years after the Bible and was a work of fiction. There are intense images of “heaven” in Revelation, including the throne room of God, the lamb slain from the foundation of the earth, and even New Jerusalem. But the end of the book contradicts much of what people think about heaven. In the end, heaven is not focused on us getting mansions, but all the universe worshipping the Lord. And the Kingdom of God is not us living eternally away from earth, but heaven uniting with earth and God with humans in an eternal city. The images of “hell” are also not what we expect. Hell is pictured as the underworld where the dead rise from to judgment, a never-ending pit where the devil can fall for a thousand years, a figure that is judged itself along with “death and the grave”, and the most popular image of the Lake of Fire where Satan and his followers are eternally tormented. The scriptures don’t explain many details about what this lake is like; simply that it is burning with fiery sulfur. Satan is definitely not in charge there, there are not demons playing, and no horns or pitchforks mentioned at all.
Why should we not be afraid as believers?
But in order to know why Revelation should not be scary for believers at all we need to simply read the first and last chapters. Revelation tells us how we should react in Revelation 22:10-11 says:
10 And he said to me, “Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand.
11 He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still.”
This was written almost 2000 years ago. The warning then was to not even seal up the Revelation so that people could read it quickly. And when they heard it, it may not change their behavior. It was meant to encourage those who were following Jesus. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is like the Gospel of John, it is meant to give believers hope by revealing God’s eternal purposes, not to scare us. Revelation is not simply a book of future prophecies. It describes through metaphors the birth of Jesus, the rebellion of Satan, and the deception of humanity right alongside battles, judgments, and the eternal city to come.
For us it can also serve as an important encouragement and part of our faith. The first century readers who were hearing it felt persecuted. They had waited for Jesus to return for decades at that point and didn’t know what to do next. They were beginning to lose hope and question their faith as we hear made clear in the first two chapters with the letters to the seven churches. And the Revelation of Jesus Christ was given to them to remind them that God had everything under control. Jesus will return. Justice will prevail. Wickedness will be punished. Satan will be defeated. People will be united. The dead will rise. The Lord will dwell with humanity. The will of God is being done behind the scenes even when we can’t see it. Our God is in control of everything, and all we have to do is be faithful to Him. It is now revealed that Jesus Christ will overcome our temporary situations ultimately, but for now we can hold onto this encouragement that He is faithful to do everything He promised.
When we are in times of transition, it can be easy to fall into fear. Many of us do not like change. We would rather be settled and know the ground we stand on. We like our second year at the new company. Our junior year of school. Year two of our relationship. When our organization or project is fully funded. Many of us thrive when we feel we’re on a firm foundation, and we’re nervous when we are launching into the unknown. Yet many of us find ourselves at a crossroads and long for clarity about how to move forward.
In Matthew 14:22, we read about the disciples in transition as they launched across the Sea of Galilee once again, headed from one miracle with Jesus to another. They had learned that whenever Jesus showed up in a new town, He created a stir. His presence led to crowds ready to run him out of town, plead with him for healing, press to hear him teach, or follow Him in curiosity.
But things felt uncertain on the sea that day. The Sea of Galilee was not an unfamiliar place–some of them were fishermen, and all of them lived near the sea their entire lives. The feelings of difficulty didn’t come with the place, but from the circumstances. The last time they were on the sea together, a storm almost destroyed their ship, but Jesus was there to save them. But this time they were back on the Sea of Galilee, sailing late at night without Jesus. His absence meant that anything could happen. They found their peace in His presence. Without Him, they felt a little more uneasy about everything. They knew where they were going and where they were coming from. But they were in transition without the presence of the Lord.
And then they saw a figure walking across the lake. They became terrified, and their place of transition became a place of fear. A figure out on the water with no boat walking above the waves was not a pleasant sight–it looked like a ghost. They had every reason to be afraid. We can relate to their fear of the unexpected showing up in the midst of the unknown.
Then Jesus called out to them, and they understood that what they were seeing was not a ghost. It was the Lord. In the space between the last and the next, God showed up for them in an unexpected way. Their place of uncertainty became a place of the miraculous.
Similarly, God is able to show up for us in unexpected ways when our circumstances change. It may look like we are alone as we move to new cities, start new jobs, or find new relationships. The water can seem unstable beneath us as it flows without clarity, especially when the night surrounds us. But if we remember that God is with us always and can meet us right where we are, we may find ourselves walking on the water with Jesus on the way to our destinations.
As you lay in your bed at night, maybe you feel a sharp, persistent pain in your chest that will not leave. Or perhaps it is a sunken feeling in your stomach that feels like you swallowed a golf ball. For another person, it might be an inability to click the off-switch on your thoughts. Like waves, one thought continually crashes over the other until, eventually, it feels like you’re drowning in an ocean of thoughts that you cannot escape. Still, for another, the opposite may be true. Instead of a flood of thoughts, there is an obsession or a constant preoccupation with a single thought. Whatever it feels like for you, we have all felt it. It’s worry. It is one of many things that God warns us against, and yet, countless people still wrestle with this feeling on a daily basis.
For me, worrying was a way of life. In the morning, I would lie awake in bed and work myself up over all that I had to do that day. As I dwelled on the what-ifs, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as it beat faster and faster. What if I fail? What if the money never comes in? What if I drop the ball? What if they don’t like me? What if I’m not as intelligent as they say I am? What if my child gets sick? The shackles of worry became so familiar to me that I did not realize I was bound by them. I had no concept of life without worry. As a result, I became dependent on my worry and anxiety, and I stopped depending on God. I relied on my endurance to overcome each day. I trusted my intelligence and my accomplishments to assure me of my future. I put my hope in measurable and calculated outcomes that I analyzed over and over in my mind. Slowly, my faith began to dwindle. Deep down, my heart was satisfied with wallowing in worry, and I started to think that God had left me stranded.
My story, and so many others, remind me of how God’s chosen people lost their faith even though God redeemed them from hundreds of years of oppression and slavery. When the Israelites were challenged by difficult circumstances, they worried and they complained. Their immediate reaction to trouble was not to trust God—instead they trusted their worries. When the Egyptians chased after them, they worried that they would die at the hand of their oppressors (Exodus 14:10-12). Two months after they escaped Egypt, they came to a wilderness and the waves of worry came crashing down on them again (Exodus 16:1-3). There was probably no food or water in sight and they all thought, what if we die out here? They complained to Moses and Aaron saying “You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel.” (Exodus 16:3 The Message). Like me, they became so comfortable in their fear and worry that they thought God had left them stranded to die.
Yet, it was not too long before that moment in the wilderness that God instructed his people to remember their redemption through the celebration of the Passover meal. Could it be that God instituted Passover because He knew the Israelites would succumb to their worries? Could it be that God knew that their worries would chip away at their faith, so He gave them a strategy to rebuild it? For the Israelites, Passover was their wake-up call. It was a reminder of God’s redemptive power, and if God could free them from slavery, He could save them from anything.
So, why worry? One could only speculate, what if the Israelites’ story would have unfolded differently? If they had clung to the story of their redemption instead of worrying, maybe they would not have crafted a powerless god made of gold. If they had remembered the day they were set free, maybe they would have mustered up enough faith to escape their worrying in the wilderness. If they had only remembered the meaning of their Passover meal, and the freedom that it represented, perhaps we would be reading a different story today.
Our story, however, is not finished. Every single day, when life’s troubles seem to be closing in on us, we have to make a choice—will we worry or will we remember? As we reflect on the Passover story and its representation of freedom, we should also remember our own redemption stories. I remember mine quite well. When I was a little girl, my parents thought I was going to die. After a severe allergic reaction, I laid on my parent’s bed in my childhood home, breathless. As my father administered CPR he cried out to God in his heart. He began to make plans for funeral arrangements and he thanked God for the six years that he spent with me. And then, as he retells the story to me, he heard a gentle voice affirmatively tell him that I was not going to die. Seconds later, I coughed—and then I took a breath. In my adulthood, I now often recall the day that God saved my life. I really mostly recall waking up in the hospital, because I was unconscious during the most severe moments of the allergic reaction. And when I awoke, I saw my mother and father by my side and they said to me, “You almost died.” When I think about that moment in time, it reminds me that God saved me, and my worries slowly begin to disintegrate. The pain in my chest goes away, and the waves of anxious thoughts transform into still waters of peace and clarity. Thinking back on my day of redemption freed me, and the freedom from worrying was in the remembering.Remember your day of redemption. Remember the day that God freed you. Remember the day He rescued you. Remember, and watch as your worries melt away into triviality.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain, and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds, and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Their destination? “Chow call” in the prison refectory or “Meds up!” to the cart the nurse brings on the unit for those requiring morning medication. The stretch of the arms relieves some of the tension from the cell’s hard cot, the eyes crusted literally and figuratively by biology and monotony, the floor’s terrain cold on even the warmest day when one’s address is prison. We do not know how many millions go to church on Easter–but we know how many awaken in state and federal prisons: an excruciating 2.1 million men and women arise at Easter’s sunrise to another day when they seem oblivious to anyone on the other side of the prison walls. Another several million arise in county jails, many not physically far from home but incarnations of “out of sight, out of mind” even to those who are descendants of those to whom Jesus spoke just before his arrest and incarceration “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Yes, millions have arisen with a purpose: count down the days, occupy the mind, anticipate a visit, and perhaps even attend chapel — purpose is a precious commodity for them. They are inmates, prisoners, convicts peopling America’s jails and prisons in record numbers — over two million in state and federal prison alone — and they arise every morning about the time the Easter Sunrise service crowd shakes the cobwebs from their consciousness to face their annual celebration.
The Easter lens well fits any view of incarceration. After all, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he was an inmate. We celebrate the truth that God raised his only begotten son from the grave — we overlook the fact that the body which breathed its last before burial belonged to a prisoner. He hung between two thieve or malefactors, but “was numbered” with them as well.
Shame and Stigma of Incarceration
Incarceration in America carries more than the punishment of “doing time.” Shame and stigmatization plague an inmate during incarceration and after release. Those twin maladies spread like a virus to relatives left behind, children separated from fathers and mothers, parents grieving for their children, grandparents serving as caretakers for a generation forty, fifty, and sixty years their junior while fathers stretch their arm in the cell and mothers wipe their eyes on the block. Shame and stigma, contagious and infectious as they manifest in symptoms of silence, rendering the affected loved one incapable of sharing the true hurt with anyone at the Sunrise service in celebration of the Risen Inmate!
It is Easter sunrise…. God listens for the praise of God’s people from the cathedrals and storefronts, the megachurch and mass choirs, parish priests and local pastors, pulpit and pew. But God also listens for the prayers of the prisoner, wrestling with past demons, present conditions, and future uncertainty, all with some hope of the transformation promised by the Risen Inmate who makes all things new. Millions arose this Easter morning to attend a sunrise service. Millions more arose to attend to the business of doing time.
An important connection exists between these two populations — this dual set of early risers on Easter morning. Many of them count people in the other crowd as kin — many who run with one crowd used to sit with the other. Many who heard the sound of the choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or “Praise is What I Do,” this morning once heard “Chow Up,” or the slow grind of motors turning to open a series of cell doors. The cymbal was the clanging of cages, the tambourine the rattling of chains. And some who this morning donned uniform orange, blue or tan jumpsuits once sported matching white or black robes on a morning such as this.
Preaching seldom reaches the pain felt by the incarcerated and their families. The separation traumatizes, the anger and disappointment of those left behind papered over by Sunday School memories of lessons on forgiveness. Many incarcerated parents long to see their children; some allow shame to hold their children at bay. Many who do seek the comfort of the Risen Inmate to dry their tears and encourage their hearts find disappointment in the prison chapel service when the local church sends well-meaning but poorly trained volunteers to preach sermons that the church’s pastor would never allow on a Sunday morning, especially an Easter Sunrise service.
Seldom do they hear that the Risen Inmate ministered to another convict before dying by telling him that he would be in paradise with him. They rarely hear that the Risen Inmate suffered brutally at the hands of the corrections officers, and was raised with evidence in his hands of eighth amendment violations of cruel and unusual punishment. They do not hear about the Risen Inmate’s long march up the Via Dolorosa to “endure the cross, despising the shame” as an encouragement for them to receive strength from knowing that “Jesus knows all about our struggles…” They hear an Easter message that rehearses the resurrection as saving act, but seldom as the sustaining act which brings “a living hope.”
Gospel of the Risen Inmate
The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who completed his first seminary degree in the New York Theological Seminary Sing Sing program said, “In all my time incarcerated, I really only heard one sermon: you messed up, you got caught, get saved …” But not only does salvation come by preaching, but also “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the “preaching of the Risen Inmate. After his release, McLeod’s preaching both in and out of prisons and jails acknowledged the pain caused by incarceration. At his passing in 2009, he was working on a Christmas sermon that dealt with the pain of incarceration. I asked him how he could make the connection between the manger and the penitentiary, and the good Dr. boldy remarked: “Trulear, this is Christmas. Everybody wants to talk about the first night of Jesus’ life. But no one wants to talk about the last night. And without the events of the last night, the first night loses its meaning! His incarceration, execution, and vindication make his birth worth celebrating!
This does not mean that prison preaching overlooks the responsibility of prisoners to own their sins. Accountability, indeed, signals a recognition of the humanity The Risen Inmate was executed to restore. The “Adam, where art thou” question lives in the Risen Inmate’s heart, for it is precisely for the sinner that he has come. He has come for the one who uses “wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd” the same way Adam used “wrong crowd” to describe “the woman that You gave me.” He came for the violent defender of a friend’s honor, and will transform and use him even as he did Moses. He came for the popular musician who conspired to put out a hit on another man so he could have his wife, all while singing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I see what I want.” He counted the transgressions of a contracted hit man, accessory to murder as his own- and that same man later wrote that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Risen Inmate sees their humanity, and for precisely that reason calls the unrighteous, the violent offender to become a deliverer of his people, the lamp of Israel, and an apostle to the Gentiles.
Not only does the Risen Inmate have a word for those persons arising in America’s jails and prisons on Easter, the Risen Inmate seeks to be seen and heard of the families left behind. Families struggle to hear a word for them in the pain of separation. They sit on the Good Friday side of the sentencing of the Risen Inmate, and don’t always see the potential for a reunion in the garden on Easter Morning. “Touch me not” stares from signs in the visitation room. It wells up in the heads on visitors subjected to searches by the corrections officers before and after time with an inmate. It is not a phrase pointing to ascension, but a descent into deprivation, motivated by security and draped in dehumanization. They want a word that addresses the morning they came to visit with new prison clothes, like the women who cam that first Easter with new grave clothes for the Risen Inmate. But when these families are told “He is not here,” it does not point to the surprise turned joy of a resurrection, but disillusionment turned panic in the discovery of a transfer to another facility, or a confinement to solitary. Does the preacher, in the name of the Risen Inmate, have a word for them?
Reimagining Our Prison Ministry
My colleague Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert once asked me to post a sermon on his website The Preaching Project, with the subject being preaching to families of the incarcerated. The message, titled “Preacher, We Are Dying in Here,” makes the case that preaching to the families of the incarcerated is something we already do! They people our pews, tithe their treasure, sing their songs, pray their prayers every Sunday, but suffer in silence. The church may have a prison ministry, but it often does not touch them, or their incarcerated family member. Prison ministry is institution focused, unlike ministry to the sick. If we replaced ministry to and visitation of the sick with the prison model, we would stop visiting individuals and families connected with the church, and just train three volunteers to give a service and a sermon once a month at the local hospital. The Risen Inmate declared that the church “shall be witnesses unto me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” For most, the jail of prison is the uttermost part of the earth; for the family of the incarcerated, it is Jerusalem.
Preaching often overlooks the scars of the formerly incarcerated, wounded by warehousing, roughed up in reentry. They looked forward to their release date as a time to step into the Promised Land, only to discover a wilderness of collateral sanctions limiting their ability to work, find housing, access education and exercise their franchise. The wilderness extends to congregations that either openly reject them, or buy into the world’s stigmatization process rendering them silent. Theirs is a tacit fellowship of frustration shepherded by shame, silence, and stigma. And the ones who come home to this stony reality find a wilderness where they had expected grapes in bunches for two men to carry.
The newspapers and other media champion the need for jobs for ex-offenders. Employment woes dot the pages of those outlets that give the formerly incarcerated coverage at all. Poor training and education wed the stigma and shame of incarceration in a double ring ceremony that morphs from ties that bind into chains that restrict. A word from the Risen Inmate can minister Easter hope beyond incarceration, and encourage the jobless soul on the other side of imprisonment. The Resurrection says that there is life beyond the dank jail, the taunts of guards and fellow inmates, the pain of separation from loved ones. “I have scars,” Jesus declares, “but I am useful, triumphant, compassionate and giving!” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Fear not.” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Feed my sheep.” The post-release Risen Inmate declares “All power has been given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
And he promises his presence “even to the end of the earth.” There is a word for the ex-offender! A promise of a transformative permanent presence that knows how to look at a former accomplice who turned scared on him to avoid arrest, and tell him to feed his lambs. The Risen Inmate knows something about change, and trusting the formerly untrustworthy. He anticipated the change when he told Simon Johnson that he was a rock. So too does he call the formerly incarcerated by names that spell hope and promise, like the term “returning citizens.” But most of all he calls them human, beloved, and even “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, the conspirator who put out a hit on Uriah the Hittite knew right well.
And Remembering the Victims
Is there a word from the Risen Inmate for those who have been victims of crime? What is a bold Easter message for families of victims, by walking toughs of town watch, by drive-by or beef, by violence domestic or street? Does God hear their pain on this Easter sunrise, and what evidence is there in the text expounded to let them know that the Healing God knows. The horrific screams heard on a Florida 911 tape may echo those of the sobs of a mother witnessing the unjust execution of her Son by alleged protectors of the common good. Is there no word for her?
“Woman, behold thy son, Son behold thy mother,” comes from the lips of the Preaching Inmate in a message that speaks hope and application in a moment of deep grief. When the Inmate’s visitors go home, they share space and possessions in a family reconfigured to provide care for her misery. The women received a word — but that word became flesh in the ministry of caregiving John supplied surrounding her, the victim of a horrific crime.
The Risen Inmate demonstrates in three days the woman’s vindication by virtue of the Resurrection. In the background, an Easter choir of formerly enslaved Africans, the old Jim Crow, sings: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”
Grabbing Resurrection Hope
Easter brims with the fullness of incarceration and its implications. It celebrates the vindication of the life of a man who did the hardest of time in the shortest of time. It recognizes that the One whose life we celebrate understood the pain of incarceration. Easter brings to judgment our fear of the inmate, our stigmatization of the prisoner, our shunning of those who return for a second chance-or a third chance, or a fourth chance…Simon Johnson elicited a response from the man destined for incarceration of seven times seventy.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Early on the first Easter morning, one was risen for all of them.
This essay originally appeared at The Living Pulpit. It is reposted here by permission.
During Lent, we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As if it were New Year’s Eve, most Christians make a Lenten resolution, consecrate it with prayer, and stick it out until Easter. Our concern for particularity in this moment, while laudable, can prevent us from grasping — and being grasped by — a broader sense of mission. The immediacy of figuring out, “What am I going to give up?” can prevent us from asking, “What sort of person is God calling me to be within the church and the world?” The first question pivots around our personal aspirations; the second one opens up a vista of service and mission. Developing the latter theme, we might approach Lent as an opportunity to embrace the care of Christ and emulate his ministry of coming alongside and caring for the least of these.
Embracing the care of Christ can be painful, for it often requires a prior admission that we are wounded. Many recent college graduates work hard to secure employment and repay loans, only to experience job loss, a reduction of responsibility, or another economic shift causing them to move back in with their parents. They are wounded. Some 222,000 veterans have returned from Iraq to a jobless recovery, a gridlocked Congress, and employers who cannot grasp the relevance of leadership skills honed in a military context. They, too, are wounded.
Our individual ailments differ, but we share an Augustinian solidarity. The bishop of Hippo suggests that we are Good Samaritans, called to love across differences of race, class, religion, and other social realities. Yet we are also recipients of God’s boundary-bursting, Samaritan love — Jesus found us by the side of the road, bandaged our wounds, and nursed us into wholeness by the power of his Holy Spirit.
As a community whose health has been and is being restored, Christ calls us to tend to the social ills of his people and all people. Matthew 25:31-46, in particular, underscores the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are in prison, and welcoming the stranger.
By caring with and for society’s most vulnerable members — Jesus calls them “the least of these” — we bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Christ. We embody his love by performing acts that immediately address the maladies of drug addiction, domestic violence, and chronic sickness. Moreover, our engagement in intermediate, systems-transforming work on behalf of the least of these — inmates, immigrants, gay and lesbian military personnel, and so on — testifies to the restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ.
Such care, whether personal or structural, does not itself build or establish God’s kingdom. To claim that it does collapses human initiative into divine work (making devils out of those who may oppose it for well-argued reasons) and, more dangerously, runs the risk of idolizing the stratification of power that enables such change (e.g., relief and development arms of denominations or national governments become sacrosanct instruments beyond critique). Our individual and collective care for “the least of these” represent necessary and yet feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who prioritized the marginalized in his ministry. Our call is not about politics, not about ideology, but about modeling the love and justice of Christ. Cornel West has famously remarked that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What does our Christian faith look like out on the street?
Lent reminds us that the church’s social service and justice-making efforts fall short of God’s glory, that our best attempts to repair the world are still broken, leading us to depend anew on the care of Christ. We are weak, but the consolations of our Lord are strong; through him we discover the strength to love, the power to carry on.